BEYOND RYE: Life Among the Elements and Elephants in Sri Lanka
Off the southern tip of India, lies Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, an island country that until recently was ravaged by a civil war that lasted over twenty years.
By Enzo Repola
Off the southern tip of India, lies Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, an island country that until recently was ravaged by a civil war that lasted over twenty years. The conflict was between the Buddhist government, supported by the majority of the people, and a Muslim minority that felt deeply discriminated against by the Constitution enacted at the time the country ceased to be a British colony. A large number of people died during the civil war, a larger number migrated overseas. This is the country where I led my 22nd Habitat for Humanity team.
As I always do before leaving for such trips, I asked my local contact for information on the place we were going to build. Following my request, I received a dossier, part of which included details on the local wild fauna —numerous venomous local snakes were carefully listed and described there, and at the bottom of the list there was a notation: “You have better to observe carefully the snakes that you should see so in case on an attack you can provide the necessary information to a doctor.” The gentleman also mentioned the ubiquitous monkeys and wild elephants. “But do not worry,” he continued, “the elephants do not represent a threat, unless you cross their paths or go too close to them.”
Welcome to the zoo, I told myself.
After a few days in Sri Lanka, apart from the snakes — we saw few of them, and I thankfully did not try to identify those creepy creatures — I had no reason to be disappointed.
Our build spot was in the village of Wattagam Madda in the Dambulla region, a forested area located in the middle of the country. While our team of 16 was putting up two houses, we were regularly observed by monkeys that congregated in large groups on the trees that surrounded us.
It took us two weeks to complete the houses, which we built of bricks made by the future homeowners. The work was strenuous but we had our reward when one family could not stop weeping for joy the day we finished their house.
One morning we were visited by a family who lived in a cabin just behind our site. They started talking with the locals who were helping us and we could clearly perceive distress and frustration. When part of the conversation was translated, we learned that “the elephants had been here again.” We were then invited to join the local on a short walk behind the site and we saw the footprints of the pachyderms on the soft ground. Our new friends pointed to banana trees with no more leaves, to the vegetation stepped on, and to a large plastic drum that had been badly dented. We learned that during the night elephants had passed through once again in search of food. We were told that these enormous visitors sometimes try to enter cabins if they smell something of interest.
I could only imagine how terrifying life is for the natives, considering that their cabins are made of mud and straw, and quite easy for an elephant to level. To protect their people, the government distributes very loud but harmless firecrackers to scare away the intruders. The government also enacted a law that provides for twenty years imprisonment and a steep fine to those who harass or kill an elephant.
To cheer up our frustrated new friends, I told them that outside my house I have deer that create a problem similar to theirs. My words raised some interest which was suddenly weakened when, in answer to a question, I had to admit my house was not nestled in a forest.
Situations like this are not common in the other Southeast Asia countries I’ve visited. The reason is that Sri Lanka is different in terms of population and natural environment. Other countries in the area, with the exception of Cambodia, are overpopulated and this in turn is responsible for the deforestation. Sri Lanka is not densely populated at all. As a matter of fact, few people can be seen in the countryside and few vehicles on the roads. In these conditions, plant and animal life are very abundant.
Those who visit adjacent India are astonished by the differences between the two countries. Even if people share the same ancestry, everything else is different. Whereas the atmosphere is calm, relaxed, and clean in Sri Lanka, India is colorful, noisy, overcrowded, chaotic, and, admittedly, not exactly clean by Western standard. I had the constant feeling there of being in a blender that had been turned on.
Sri Lanka is also peculiar for another reason. Unlike India and other places in Southeast Asia where people are educated and multilingual, Sri Lankans typically speak one of the two official languages: Sinhalese or Tamil. And apart from the towns and tourist resorts, very little English is spoken there. My team members who were proficient in body language were in high demand.
Just north of Wattagam Madda, we visited Minneriya National Park and were astonished to see numerous herds of elephants, and other animals large and small.
I don’t want to give the impression that Sri Lanka is some sort of large national park. It is an ancient country rich in history and traditions. Numerous examples of an ancient civilization can be found, primarily in the form of Buddhist temples, most of them carved into the rocks, and large Buddha statues placed atop mountains. Religion and civil life are connected and intertwined there. Case in point: each first full-moon day is a Buddhist festivity and a national holiday. In addition, they celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, and some Muslim festivities.
When I expressed my surprise about the number and kinds of holy days, I received an answer accompanied by a humble smile: “We learned here the hard way to be tolerant of everybody.”